Writing Lessons from Laura Ingalls Wilder: Using Theme to Hold the Story Together

Monday, July 18, 2016

Each of Laura’s books had a theme that unified the story. The theme wasn’t the story, however. It was the glue that held the story together.

In a January 25, 1938 letter from Laura to Rose, Laura said that homesteading was the theme of By the Shores of Silver Lake. But the theme wasn’t obvious on the surface of the story. As Laura explained in that same letter: “The book is bound to be mostly about the R.R. and town, for securing the homestead in spite of difficulties is the story, and being at home at last on the homestead, at last is the climax and finish.” (The italics are in the original.)

Then there are those books where the theme overshadowed—or perhaps became—the plot. These passages are from a February 19, 1938 letter from Laura to Rose. The story under discussion became The Long Winter.

            Here is what is bothering me and holding me up. I can’t seem to find a plot or pattern as you call it.

            There seems to be nothing to it, only the struggle to live, through the winter, until spring comes again. This, of course, they all did. But is it strong enough or can it be made strong enough, to supply the necessary thread running through the book?

            I could make a book with the plot being Laura’s struggles to be, and success in becoming a teacher, with the Hard Winter and all being obstacles overcome on the way. Laura taught the next winter you know.

            I could tell of the hard winter, how school closed. Laura studied at home, going to school next summer from the farm. And how she was only well started in school the next winter when she had to quit to go teach. She would never be able to go to school and learn to be a teacher. She just was a teacher without. Get the idea? That would be a plot. It would not make the book too long. But it seems to weaken it. To be sort of anti-climactic after the Hard Winder and it couldn’t have that name. I don’t like it. But where is the plot in Hard Winter?

Laura followed her instincts and didn’t use her quest to become a teacher as the plot. I’m not even sure I can find a discernable plot in The Long Winter, unless it is the fight to survive. But that didn’t ruin the book for me. In fact, it was my favorite Little House book as a child and on my first re-read as an adult.

It works because it has a cohesive theme. The struggle to live is strong enough to supply the necessary thread running throughout the book.

It’s nice to have a strong plot, but it isn’t always necessary when the book has a good theme that holds the story together.

That’s this week’s lesson from Laura Ingalls Wilder.


Nobody knows exactly where the Little House on the Prairie was located, but the picture shows one possible site. I visited this spot in Kansas with my mother in 2010. The cabin was built from the description in the book.

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